Poet and Dancer Essay - Critical Essays

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Poet and Dancer

POET AND DANCER opens with a prefatory account of how Helena Manarr entices an unnamed professional writer into reconstructing the elusive story of her dead beloved daughter Angel. Angel is the poet of the title, though her collected works amount to a few scrawled pages of literary juvenilia. Lara is its dancer, though she is too capricious to make a career of anything but destruction. Jhabvala’s novel imagines the collision of stasis with motion, of selflessness with self-absorption . . . of poet with dancer.

In her early twenties, Lara seduces Angel’s feckless father Peter, a business executive who, like several other characters, learns “how difficult it was to deny Lara anything she momentarily desired.” He installs her in an apartment and convinces Angel to keep her company. Abandoning Helena, Angel submerges her identity in her willful cousin’s and serves the other’s increasingly irrational whims. Lara’s bizarre shopping sprees and sexual escapades convince her psychotherapist father that she needs professional help. Angel’s own dementia is apparent in her belief that she can save Lara by obliterating herself.

“She wasn’t mad,” demurs Roland, one of many whom Lara attracts and discards. “Just bad. . . . There are good people trying to do all right, and there are bad ones that pull them down and win.” POET AND DANCER is a morality play that tests the respective strengths of evil and love.

Lara is a femme fatale powerless to restrain her own ruinous power. When extrovert Lara links up with introvert Angel, it is a fundamental fusion of elemental forces, and the result isexplosive. Years later, the novel’s self-effacing narrator is still contending with the fallout.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. February 28, 1993, XIV, p.6.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 19, 1993, p.14.

London Review of Books. XV, March 25, 1993, p.22.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 14, 1993, p.3.

New Statesman and Society. VI, April 9, 1993, p.56.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 28, 1993, p.13.

The New Yorker. LXIX, March 22, 1993, p.106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, December 28, 1992, p.57.

The Times Literary SupplemenL April 16, 1993, p.20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 28, 1993, p.15.